Trapped strays and pets that had outgrown their cute baby phase were not an entirely uncommon find upon our doorstep when we opened in the morning. I guess a vet’s office was a better place for them to end up than out on the street, but we didn’t have the room or resources to house them, making their time with us until a shelter placement could be made a little inconvenient.
Still, I’d rather have been inconvenienced than see another innocent critter lost and alone because of irresponsible owners.
So when I opened up one chilly Spring morning to see a box sitting on the stoop, I wasn’t entirely surprised or upset by it. Predictably, there was no note or return address; there never was. The deep yowling from within, which started the moment I opened the door, told me that I would be dealing with a cat, one that wasn’t entirely happy. I carefully peeled back one of the cardboard flaps to peek inside and was met with a scruffy, scarred face and some of the most unusual eyes I’d ever seen on a feline.
They were gray, more almond shaped than oval, and they regarded me with a wariness that struck me as being all too aware. All too intelligent.
The pitiful mew that followed was enough to break the spell and I scooped the box up to bring it into one of our exam rooms. The vet wasn’t in yet, but I could perform a preliminary look over and determine the basics, any fleas, obvious injuries, that sort of thing, for her and have the paperwork started.
Despite its previous howling, the cat was immediately affectionate and rubbed its ragged head against my hands with a deep, thrumming purr after I gently tipped it out of the box and the only difficulty I had when it came to looking it over was getting it to sit still. She, as I soon discovered, was on the small side, and her dark fur was matted and patchy, but overall, I didn’t find anything particularly alarming.
I gave her a quick flea bath anyway, which she endured with surprising patience, and then I put her in one of the cages in our cat room, mindful to keep her segregated to a corner where she had no direct neighbors. It was better to be cautious in case she was carrying something internal that I wasn’t aware of yet.
The other cats we were boarding meowed and pawed at me through their cage doors, a reminder that I was late with their breakfast, and I hurried to the small kitchenette where we stored the animal food. Rianna, the other vet tech, was already there prepping meals for the dogs.
“Late today, Emmy, tsk tsk,” she said teasingly.
“Nope, early actually. We had another overnight drop off,” I replied, poking my tongue out at her.
After five years working together under Dr. Paris Linez, we had formed a sisterly relationship with all the maturity that came with it.
“Oh no,” she frowned over the giant bag of kibble she was filling bowls from. “What was it? Another rabbit?”
“Cat this time. Sweetest little thing, but she’s had it rough from the looks of her. I put her in with the others until Paris can look her over and decide if she’s well enough to head off to a shelter.”
I returned to the cat room a few moments later with the tray of food and water bowls, each carefully marked to make sure it went to the right cat. Some required special diets, some were picky eaters, and the rest just had helicopter owners who insisted that their feline friend receive only the finest canned goods that the big named brands had to offer. Our little orphan just got some of the generic stuff we kept for cases such as hers.
“Here you go, sweetie; you’re lucky number thirteen in the cat house,” I said as I pulled open the cage door to slide the bowls in.
The cat was sitting in the back of the cage, her tail curled around her paws. She was staring at me with the same unusual intensity that she’d had when I first found her, but there was something even more disconcerting about her now, something that was just off.
It took me a moment to realize that her face seemed to have lost a lot of its fur, leaving her almost completely bare skinned. A pang of guilt stabbed at my heart; despite my best efforts, the bath and the towel drying that followed had probably been too abrasive for her damaged coat.
“You poor thing,” I murmured, reaching back to give her ear a gentle scratch.
She tilted her head into my hand and began purring again, but she never took her eyes off of me.
“I’ll have the doc come check you out soon, ok? Try to eat something while you wait.”
I gave the bowl a little shake, trying to pique her interest in its contents, but she ignored it and remained where she was. She still hadn’t moved from the back of her cage when I left a few moments later. It was always worrying when an animal wouldn’t eat, but all I could do was hope that a little alone time would relax her enough to allow her appetite to return.
Paris, our petite blonde vet who looked more model than dedicated animal doctor, was in her office checking over her calendar for the day when I poked my head in. She could be a little self absorbed, it came with the job, but she was always good to me and we got on well.
“Hey, boss lady, got a minute?”
“Just one from the looks of it,” she said. “Everything ok?”
“Yeah, I was just hoping you could take a look at a cat that was left out front. I started the exam and gave her a flea treatment already.”
“Is she going to be a problem patient? We’ve got our first appointment in twenty minutes.”
“No, she’s an absolute doll.”
“Alright, but we’ve got to be quick. I need exam room one for Mr. Ruffles; he ate another one of his toys.”
“Maybe his owners should stop giving their Great Dane things meant for dogs half his size,” I said with a roll of my eyes at the mention of one of our frequent flyers.
“Yeah, but then who would pay for my Cancun trip?”
We were just outside the cat room when Rianna caught up with us.
“Ooh, is it visiting time with the new kid?” She asked, pushing open the door and gesturing for us to go in ahead of her.
“Very briefly,” Paris said, “just going to give her a once over and probably have one of you run some blood and fecal tests to make sure she’s in good enough health to hand over to a shelter.”
“You bleeding heart,” Rianna replied.
The three of us crowded into the cat room and I pointed Paris towards the stray, who had moved to the front of the cage and was sitting with her face almost pressed against the bars.
Instead of the normal feline features she’d had when I’d last seen her, her hairless face has morphed somehow and now looked almost human, almost like a little girl, and when those too-intelligent gray eyes came to rest on Paris, who recoiled in horror, it parted its thin lips and it spoke.
“Seventy pounds of flesh and all will be forgiven.”
All of us began to scream at once and we scrambled over one another to get to the door, which had automatically closed behind us. Rianna yanked at the handle, but it remained in place, unyielding, locked, and no amount of twisting or tugging at the deadbolt budged it.
Behind us, the cats began to hiss and spit and throw themselves at their cage doors so that they rattled loudly.
“Seventy pounds of flesh and all will be forgiven,” the cat with the almost-girl’s face said again.
Its voice was low, smokey, cold.
“What the fuck is that?” Rianna cried.
We had all huddled against the door, as far away from the creature as possible, and were banging on it, trying to get the attention of the receptionist or a client, anyone who might be able to hear us. The cats continued to wail and thrash in a growing frenzy. There was only one who was still and calm and she watched our efforts to escape with gleaming gray eyes.
“What the fuck is that?” Rianna demanded again.
“I-I don’t know! It wasn’t like that this morning! It was just a cat!”
On one side, Paris was slamming her shoulder into the door over and over again despite how obviously futile the effort was. Her face had become ashen, her eyes wide and watery, and I could feel her whole body trembling violently. One the other, Rianna was crying and clinging to my arm and I clung to hers in return. While we stared, terrified, at the beast, Paris kept her back to it, too afraid to face it.
“Seventy pounds of flesh and all will be forgiven,” it said.
At the far end of the room, in the cage closest to the one the creature was in, a second cat pressed its face, now also more human girl than feline, against its cage bars.
“Seventy pounds of flesh and all will be forgiven.”
A third cat, and then a fourth, and then each one down the row of cages, all with that same terrible face, repeated the phrase.
“Seventy pounds of flesh and all will be forgiven!”
Rianna and I shouted for help and threw ourselves at the door again, but Paris had become oddly still. Her hands were pressed over her face and she was rocking slightly, back and forth, back and forth, her head shaking, and she was mumbling to herself.
“It’s her face, it can’t be. It can’t be!”
“Seventy pounds of flesh and all will be forgiven!” The cats bellowed.
“It was an accident!”
The room went quiet after Paris’ outburst and every pair of eyes was fixed on her.
“It was…just an accident,” she said weakly, looking to me and Rianna with such helplessness.
I glanced around at all those cats with their almost human faces, staring intently, but silently, at us, and I swallowed hard.
“W-what was?” I whispered.
“I was at a party last month; I’d just had a drink, maybe two, it wasn’t much. I was fine! I could drive!” Paris was hugging herself and looking at the ground. “A kid, like, ten or eleven years old, ran into the road and I-I didn’t have time to stop…”
The cats began to pace restlessly in the cages; all but one.
“I didn’t even hit her that hard, I wasn’t going fast!”
“Was she ok?” Rianna’s grip on my arm had only grown tighter.
Paris just kept looking pointedly down at her feet.
“Seventy pounds of flesh and all will be forgiven,” the creature said from its corner cage.
“Shut up! Shut up, shut up, shut up!” Paris shrieked, and the cats’ near-human faces all twisted into matching scowls. “It was an accident!”
“Paris,” Rianna started to say.
“She died, ok? The kid. I saw it on the news. I hit her and-and I panicked and I left her there. It was a neighborhood, it wasn’t that late! Someone should have gone out to check on her. Where were her parents? Who was looking after her?”
The roomed filled with angry yowls and hisses.
“God, Paris, did you tell anyone?” I asked over the noise.
“I couldn’t! Do you know what would have happened to me? My career? Someone should have been looking after her!”
“You left a little girl to die in the road for your career?” Rianna’s terror had ebbed just slightly to make room for anger.
“It was an accident! Where were her parents?” Paris whirled on us and screeched, her nostrils flaring. “It was an accident!”
“You killed a little girl!” Rianna said accusingly.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake, the dumb shit ran in front of my car! What was I supposed to do, ruin my life because someone couldn’t control their kid?”
“You should have stopped!” Rianna snapped and I dared to nod once in agreement.
“It wasn’t my fault!” Paris shouted and the room quieted again until only our heavy breathing could be heard.
From over her shoulder, the low, smokey voice spoke again.
“Seventy pounds of flesh and all will be forgiven.”
Seventy pounds, the cat creature kept saying. That was about the average weight of a ten year old girl, wasn’t it? I shuddered, looking between it and Paris, who was still vehemently denying that she had been in the wrong.
I don’t think any of us really expected what happened next, not even Rianna.
She shot up, her arms outstretched, and she shoved Paris hard against the cages. It was an impulsive decision and Rianna gaped at her hands, as if surprised by her own decision. Paris yelped and grabbed at the bars to steady herself and, as she did, the latch on each cage slid out of place. A dozen cats with almost human faces pounced as one and Paris was lost beneath a swarm of fur and claw and tooth.
One remained in its cage, and it wore a satisfied smile on its malformed face.
The door to the cat room swung open behind us and Rianna and I scrambled out, yelling for help while Paris’ agonized screams chased us down the hall.
We were gone only moments, just long enough to run into one of our clients in reception, an off duty fireman who grabbed the nearby extinguisher and told us to lead him back. He charged past us when we pointed out the door and kicked it open, the extinguisher raised and at the ready to spray at the cats to chase them off.
But there was no need.
Twelve cats were back in their cages, their features completely feline once again. The thirteenth, a ragged little orphan who had been left on our doorstep that morning, was nowhere to be seen. It all would have looked so normal, so okay, had it not been for Paris’ body slumped against the bottom row of cages. Blood covered the linoleum floor and splattered across the wall, her clothing was shredded, and most of her flesh had been stripped right down to the bone, leaving very little aside from her face, which was still twisted in pain and terror.
Rianna and I could only look for a second before stumbling away. We didn’t need to see any more.
Paris had repaid her debt, all seventy pounds of it, and now, all was forgiven.